A proposed budget amendment that would cut local voices out of the solar permitting process is moving forward despite pushback from Greene and Columbia county officials.
Negotiations are continuing on the proposed changes to siting solar and wind energy, known as the Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act, said a spokesman in the office of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“It is impossible to say if anything outside the normal will get done, but renewable energy siting is still on the table,” he said.
Since the budget amendment was announced on Feb. 21, local officials have warned that changing solar siting laws to abolish the existing review process would violate home rule and diminish local authority over land use.
“We would be powerless against the state if it passes,” said Coxsackie Town Supervisor Rick Hanse.
“We are at the mercy of the state whether they take it out of the budget, and should it pass, the state will have complete authority to override town zoning laws,” he said. “If you take away a town’s right to have charge of zoning, you have taken away a good portion of the town’s reason to exist.”
Hanse said local officials have been lobbying lawmakers to debate the proposed amendment separate from budget negotiations, a move supported by state Sen. Daphne Jordan, R-43.
Changes to the solar siting process do not belong in the state budget, Jordan said.
“I have serious concerns about the governor’s top-down plan for the solar siting process, as do many local stakeholders,” Jordan said. “Taking power away from municipalities and local residents to shape and plan their own environment is a top-down, Albany-driven approach that will cause more harm than good. I oppose the governor’s plan.”
Assemblyman Chris Tague wrote a letter urging Gov. Cuomo to reconsider the proposed amendment in favor of a more inclusive, locally controlled siting process on Mar. 23.
“Our local governments are well-positioned to know what is best for their residents and the future of their communities and therefore need to have more input in the decision-making process, not less,” Tague wrote. “Simply put, New York state should be taking steps to incorporate communities into the siting of renewable energy facilities, not circumventing municipal review and home rule under the guise of more efficient development.”
Stuyvesant Town Supervisor Ron Knott authored a resolution in opposition to the proposed budget amendment, which was adopted by the Columbia County Board of Supervisors and several towns, including Stuyvesant, Copake and Hillsdale.
Officials are concerned that the proposed changes could accelerate the development of solar farms across Greene and Columbia counties, including Hecate Energy’s proposed 700-acre facility in Copake and the Flint Mine solar project in Coxsackie.
“The new law would further accelerate the process of review and further tilt the process against the town,” said Copake Town Supervisor Jeanne Mettler.
Under the current review process, each solar project’s review board includes two local representatives appointed by their communities.
But those local representatives would be eliminated under the proposed permitting process, instead leaving decisions to the new Office of Renewable Energy Permitting, which would be part of the state Department of Economic Development.
Opposition to the proposed amendment was strong before COVID-19 pushed government into crisis mode and officials say siting laws are too important to be changed now.
“It is never appropriate to commingle state finances with public policy, that is doubly true now as we’re dealing with the coronavirus crisis and working to help communities, workers, small businesses and colleges that are being impacted,” Jordan said.
“Especially in the midst of this public health crisis, as Copake, like every small town, is struggling to keep town government open and responsive, there is something especially wrong about passing a law which disregards the towns’ local laws, process and input,” Mettler said.
Three-way budget negotiations between the Senate, the Assembly and the governor’s office are ongoing amid the COVID-19 shutdown, with Cuomo telling lawmakers to “do their jobs” at a press conference on Mar. 23.
The governor’s decision to move forward on the proposed solar siting changes comes after he said he would not pursue policies that require detailed negotiations in the upcoming budget.
Assemblyman Jake Ashby, R-106, did not provide comment at press time.